The cairns of Acadia: Objects of wonder, subjects of vandals

One in a series on Acadia’s Bates cairns

The iconic Bates-style cairns of Acadia National Park, Zen-like in their simplicity and historic in nature, keep hikers from getting lost on the trails. But they also attract vandals and random rock-stacking visitors, making trail maintenance a nightmare.

bates cairn

Each Bates-style cairn is unique in coloring, size and shape, such as this one along the Dorr North Ridge Trail.

A couple of years ago, vandals knocked over nearly all the cairns on the Cadillac South Ridge Trail, even shattering some of the rocks. And every season, visitors pile rocks on ridgetops and cobblestone beaches, not knowing that violates park rules, or that it may offend others who come after.

Just last month, a reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News of St. George, Utah, wrote an article entitled “Stacking cairns to commune with nature,” about a family trip to Acadia, featuring pictures of his sons piling rocks on the beach along the Ship Harbor Trail. He reasoned that the next big storm would knock the rocks over, and that it’s not the same as graffiti or vandalism marring national parks.

For park resource specialist Charlie Jacobi, who’s been trying to educate the public for years about leaving Bates-style cairns and other rocks alone, it’s been so disheartening, he almost gave up last year. “I was ready to throw in the towel and say, ‘We can’t do it,’” Jacobi said in an interview. “It is a waste of our time when somebody is undoing the work that you do on a daily basis.”

cairn

Like a mini Stonehenge, this Bates-style cairn stands guard on the Pemetic South Ridge Trail.

It’s against park rules to randomly stack rocks, or to add to or dismantle Bates cairns. The issue of people messing around with cairns or building stone heaps of their own isn’t just dogging Acadia. Earlier this month, National Public Radio focused on the controversy in a piece entitled “Making Mountains Out of Trail Markers? Cairns Spark Debate in Southwest,” spurred by a column in the High Country News, “Stop the rock-stacking.”

Whether the issue is unofficial rock piles in the Southwest or in Acadia, vandalized Bates-style cairns or graffiti in national parks, said Jacobi: “There’s a larger issue here about stewardship of public lands and land trusts and places we love and go to.”

“Leave What You Find,” one of the seven principles developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, is the message people need to get, said Jacobi.

“Whether it is rocks or wildflowers or anything else, the little bit of restraint that is needed to share Acadia or any place with thousands and thousands of other people is tough to accept. But I think that is what we need to do,” said Jacobi.

Otherwise there could be rock stacks littering the landscape, or vandalized Bates-style cairns. “I’ve got photos ad nauseum. I’ve got pictures of different things that visitors have built. You could see holes in the soil where rocks have been removed,” said Jacobi. He’s also seen rock stacks piled on a boulder in the middle of Echo Lake, destruction of summit cairns and other random acts.

cairn

This photo of cairn vandalism and rock-stacking on the east face of Dorr Mountain along what is now known as Schiff Path was taken in the late 1990s. (NPS photo provided courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

History of Bates cairns of Acadia, and of humans stacking stones

The Bates cairns – two to four base stones, with a mantel rock across and a pointer stone up top – were first dreamed up by Bar Harbor pathmaker Waldron Bates, during the early 1900s, even before Acadia came into existence. These unique trail markers had fallen out of favor somewhere along the way, with conical cairns replacing them over the years, according to Jacobi. But these, too, were a maintenance nightmare for the Acadia trail crew.

In the 1990s, the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, part of the National Park Service, highlighted the Bates cairns in a report it did on Acadia’s historic trails. That’s when Jacobi suggested to Acadia trails foreman Gary Stellpflug that they try Bates-style cairns, to see if they would be any easier to build and keep up than the conical cairns.

cairn

This circle of rocks defaced Sargent Mountain. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

“We started with a couple of years’ experimentation. We did them on a couple of south ridges and we found that, sure enough, they are easier to build and maintain, even though they get tampered with a lot,” said Jacobi.

“They are historic, so we are restoring part of that historic fabric of the park. They also use a lot less rocks. That is environmentally much better for the ridges if we are not using quite so many rocks. We avoid taking rocks from the soil as much as possible. If we do, we replace the rock we take with another rock so that we are still retaining the soil there. Even the rocks that are loose, lying around on the landscape and not embedded in the soil, they provide habitat for invertebrates and spiders,” said Jacobi.

In 2001, the park began converting from conical cairns to Bates-style cairns. It’s taken about 10 to 12 years for the process to be completed, primarily by a Friends of Acadia-funded and park-trained group of college-age youngsters known as Ridge Runners, as well as by park staff and others.

“That is where we are at now,” Jacobi said, with annual maintenance of the Bates-style cairns, and trying to “make them bigger and better and more consistent in their appearance, so it is less tempting for visitors to add a rock or subtract a rock, or build another one.”

cairn

There’s nothing to smile about here with this pile of rocks. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

But there seems to be something deep in human nature that prompts people to move rocks around. There’s even a book entitled “Cairns: Messengers in Stone,” chronicling the history of humans making rock piles, and the geology, ecology and global nature of the stacks, whether they’re used to mark trails or a grave site, or to otherwise communicate to the next person to come along. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.)

Jacobi was even featured in the book by author David B. Williams, for his attempts to try to change the rock-moving aspect of human behavior in Acadia, through signs and other forms of education. He’s written op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and research studies, and been interviewed by a variety of publications, including the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Outdoors magazine.

But so far, Jacobi said, “When you ask about my faith in changing human behavior, from my perspective, the jury is very much still out.”

Efforts to educate visitors about cairns of Acadia make slow progress

Just as Jacobi was ready to give up fighting for the cairns of Acadia last year, he decided to approach the sign committee to try one more time to come up with a message that would stop some of the rock moving.

“I went to our park sign committee and said, ‘The only thing I can think to do here is to put up a whole bunch of signs. I don’t like doing it but as far as I am concerned, the choice here is between signs and Bates cairns’,” Jacobi said.

A Bates-style cairn, located off the Champlain North Ridge Trail, overlooks tiny Egg Rock and the Schoodic Peninsula.

A Bates-style cairn, located off the Champlain North Ridge Trail, overlooks tiny Egg Rock and the Schoodic Peninsula.

Working with researchers from the University of Vermont, the park tested six different signs on Gorham Mountain Trail “based on what is called the theories of moral development,” Jacobi said.

“None of the signs was a smoking gun in terms of working that much better than any other, none was statistically more significant than another,” said Jacobi, although any of the signs was better than no sign. However, “there was one that percentage-wise had done a little bit better and I preferred that message over the other. That is the one we selected to go on the signs.”

So at the end of last summer, Jacobi had his crew put the new signs up on tripods, on the popular ridge trails near the first, second or third cairn.

Theories of moral development aside, Jacobi knows “we are probably never going to be able to stop the occasional vandalism. There are just some folks who cannot be educated. We are not going to reach them. We need to reach the people who are maybe on the fence, whether they are children or young adults, and help them understand that the park will be a better place if they leave the cairns just as they are.”

cairns

Hopefully new signs, such as this one on Norumbega Mountain’s Goat Trail, will keep people from adding to or taking away from Bates-style cairns.

That goes for not randomly stacking rocks in Acadia, either, whether simple piles or elaborate structures, Jacobi said.

“Some of it is actually pretty neat, but if you are going to do that sort of thing – and I don’t recommend it for the most part – but if you are going to do it, you should make sure that when you get your rocks, you are not doing any damage where you get the rocks from, and that you take a picture of whatever it is that you do, and then put the rocks back where you got them from. I think very few people would be willing to do that.

“I would not recommend doing it on top of a mountain. The only appropriate place in Acadia to do anything like that is probably along the seashore where we have the cobble beaches. If you want to construct something, go ahead and do it, take your picture, and then knock it right back down again.”

That’s the message about the stones that Jacobi wishes people would get.

One other message Jacobi wants to relay: Civic-minded hikers who want to do something about the vandalism and haphazard stone heaps shouldn’t just start moving rocks they think are out of place on their own. Instead, they should become a trained volunteer to help with cairn maintenance, and maybe adopt a trail, he said.  The park’s volunteer coordinator is Dianna McKeage, and she can be reached at (207) 288-8716 or via an an online contact form.

rock stack

Overlooking rock stacks run amok at Blue Hill Overlook on the shoulder of Cadillac. Don’t be tempted to make your own stone heaps. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

One such volunteer, Donald P. Lenahan, author of “The Memorials of Acadia National Park” and a blog by the same name, said he and his fellow Bates cairn caretakers sometimes call themselves “Waldron’s Warriors,” after the pathmaker who came up with the idea for the simple yet elegant trail markers.

“The Bates cairns are a maintenance issue,” said Lenahan, a volunteer crew leader with the Friends of Acadia. “Whenever I see an extraneous one I destroy it. If one has been modified, I fix it. This I do whenever I’m hiking.”

As the park prepares to celebrate its Centennial next year, wouldn’t it be a fitting memorial to Waldron Bates and others who have blazed the trails before us, to see the cairns of Acadia unmarred, and the landscape free of random rock piles?

23 thoughts on “The cairns of Acadia: Objects of wonder, subjects of vandals

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  6. Moira O'Neill

    Thanks! It’s kind of cold for t-shirt photos right now but I have been working with a Boy Scout whose Eagle Scout project focuses on public education about the Bates cairns. I would like to put him in touch with you and will ask him to send a photo of himself in his splendid scout uniform full of badges with perhaps an assistant in a Bates shirt. Sound good?
    Moira

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      How funny, we put in a request via Troop 89, when saw mention of a Scout doing something about cairns. Absolutely interested in being in contact with him, along with photos. You have our email.Thanks!!

      Reply
  7. Moira O'Neill

    Thanks! Glad you like the t-shirt. Please feel free to use photos from the site or let me know if you need some with real live hikers inside of them. 2.7 million people visit the park each year – only a % actually hike, but it’s still enough that re-visiting education about the Bates cairns and all other important safety measures is warranted. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      If you have a real live hiker wearing the T-shirt on the trails of Acadia, perhaps near a Bates cairn, and who’s willing to be identified in the photo caption – e-mail it along!! Would we call you a current or former Waldron’s Warrior or Ridge Runner? Thanks again!

      Reply
  8. Moira O'Neill

    Thanks for this great post about the Bates cairns. I have worked with Ranger Charlie Jacobi for the past 4 years on cairn maintenance and while I appreciate attempts at preservation through a moral development approach, my hypothesis is this is more a learning problem. It’s hard for an authority to demand moral development. That may have worked in previous generations but today people need to know why before they take responsibility.
    Bloom’s Taxonomy emphasizes the development of knowledge, skills and attitude. It stands therefore, that if we educate people about the meaning or purpose of the Bates cairn, they will develop skills to read them and their attitude then will be to respect them and their purpose.
    It is interesting to say the Bates cairn is historic and unique to Acadia National Park. However, even your excellent piece about them fails to instruct the reader on the purpose of the design. While conical cairns orient hikers to the path (you are here), the Bates cairn orients hikers to path and direction (you are here and you should go in this direction). This is a brilliant design if your intention is to keep hikers on the trail while minimizing impact with too many structures. The mantel or lintel stone is a table for the pointer and the 2 or 4 base stones give elevation to be seen from a distance. Knowing what the Bates cairn is saying gives the hiker skill in reading them. Internalizing this message and use, hopefully, will prompt an attitude of respect and preservation. Next hikers need to learn about the impact of going off trail, and even the impact of a rescue operation on fragile environments. The Bates cairn and Acadia National Park are beautiful. Having the right knowledge, skills and attitude about both will keep them that way.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hello Moira, thank you for your comment. Much can be written about Bates cairns; they are easy to be passionate about, especially if you know their history and their purpose. Your Acadia Centennial T-shirts on the anatomy of a Bates cairn will go a long way toward educating people about them. We’re thinking of doing an update on the cairn story. OK if we use a photo of the T-shirts from your Web site, and some of your comments here in the next post on the topic? Thanks again!

      Reply
  9. Ken Long

    People will always try to express themselves and little sculptures of stacked rocks are just one way, some are attractive, some are amusing, and some are damaging. Each expresses the individual responsible. That said, there’s no need to go messing with the trail markers or natural points of attraction just because you can, but try telling that to the unappreciative who think these things are just there and that what they do is a part of nature too. Welcome to Christianity and the American way. (edit)

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hi Ken, thanks for your comment. Not sure the impulse by some to pile rocks is limited to Americans or Christians. Hopefully education about Leave No Trace will help people realize it’s not a good thing to do. Or perhaps what Acadia’s Web site says about rules and regulations may help, as pasted below:

      “Public Property/Natural and Cultural Features
      The possession, injury, destruction, removal, or disturbance of park property or natural resources, including animals, plants, minerals, cultural, and archaeological objects is prohibited. This includes collecting rocks, cobbles, plants, marine organisms, other natural materials, and historic objects and artifacts.”

      Reply
  10. James

    I can see why they have a hard time getting the message out. I had to get to the last sentence of this article to even understand for certain what the hell they are trying to do.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hi James, thanks for your comment – and for reading to the last sentence! Point could always be more clearly stated. Added a sentence higher up so there’s no doubt what the issue is. It’s against park rules for people to randomly stack rocks, or to add to or take away from Bates cairns.

      Reply
  11. A J MacDonald Jr

    I was with you until the giant sign explaining the Bates-style cairns. Why not just use small signs, markers, or blazes for trail markers instead of Bates-style cairns (with giant accompanying explanatory signs) for trail markers?

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hi AJ, thanks for your comment. Problem with blazes, especially on Acadia’s open ridges, is that they may not be visible if there’s fog or snow (even if not many people hike Acadia in winter). In the woods, the blue blazes on trees may be fine, but it’s the open ridges that can be an issue. Park had maintenance problem with conical cairns too (although don’t know if they tried signage with those cairns). Bates cairns are historic, and easier to maintain than conical cairns, so could see why they would prefer that approach. As to why not a smaller sign to educate about Bates cairns, maybe it has to do with the fact that vandals have stolen small trail signs before.

      Reply
    2. Ken Long

      There is something far more interesting and attractive about these than a simple sign or marker, which can be done as well.

      Reply
  12. Rita

    I think people view their home made cairns as cute little rock sculptures and have absolutely no idea of their function or history. We live in a condo in a resort area beside a river and some of the owners have taken to erecting balanced piles of stones in the front gardens. Their own little garden decor. Meanwhile in a public beach area on this river, summertime visitors build their own piles in the sand. Dozens of them. They haven’t got a clue. On our property they’re harmless, but oblivious people don’t restrict themselves to harmless effort.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Rita. It is true there’s a difference between stacking rocks on your own property as a form of artistic expression, and piling them on public property, especially in natural areas where others who follow may be surprised to find human-stacked structures in a place that’s supposed to be pristine. Hopefully better education about Leave No Trace will help.

      Reply
  13. Jeanette Matlock

    I see this problem is a result of people’s entitlement issues these days – a mindset of the current generation who think it’s their right to do whatever they want on public or private property – crave their initials into a tree, move cairns, take stuff, vandalize, etc. They fail to or refuse to understand the concept “Leave No Trace.” I often refer to some of these visitors as having “theme park mentality”. They treat national & state parks as if they were at a theme park, which when littered, vandalized, etc, can usually be repaired, repainted, etc.. These people can’t grasp that this is nature – a unique place or occurrence that can not be replicated. Once tampered with or destroyed, it is gone forever. Wish there was a way to police such people including banning them from parks if caught in the act. Leave it the way you found it for others to enjoy.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Hi Jeanette, it’s a shame some people don’t respect nature, or their fellow visitor. Hopefully the new signs by the park, and other forms of public education, will help. Not sure what sort of fine or penalty exists for moving rocks against park rules, but maybe if the park publicized that, that might prevent some acts of vandalism.

      Reply

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